NBA Season Preview: Atlantic Division (10/07/16)

By Sean Pyritz @srpyritz

No matter ESPN's best efforts to sell the preseason as legitimate competitive basketball, the NBA season is still weeks away from tip-off. With the days remaining until October 25 we will continue with our divisional previews. Check out our previous installments where we covered the Southeast and Pacific divisions. Today, our focus shifts to the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference.

The Atlantic Division is a peculiar name for a division where only 60 percent of its members are in fact along the Atlantic coastline. If 60 percent membership is enough to name a division, then the Atlantic should be renamed the “Lottery Division.” The bottom three teams in this division – New York, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia – were also the bottom three finishers in the Eastern Conference at-large. As a result, the Atlantic Division finished with the worst overall record amongst divisions. Philadelphia and Brooklyn figure to finish near the bottom once again, while New York has opened up the checkbook in the hopes that adding veteran talent and a new head coach can bring them back into the playoffs.

At the top of the division, Toronto finished second in the East with 56 wins and Boston finished in a tie for the third-best East record at 48 wins. Both teams look to continue their success built upon the continuity of their rosters. In each of the last three seasons, both of these teams have improved year over year, a trend that should be buoyed by health in Toronto (DeMarre Carroll played just 26 games last season) and free agency in Boston (Al Horford enters Boston's starting rotation, more on that shortly). Much like its oceanic counterpart in the Western Conference, the Atlantic Division is a strange mix of competitive top-level teams and mediocre or worse teams filled with hopes and dreams. Let's take a closer look.

All-Atlantic Division Team

G – Kyle Lowry | Toronto Raptors

Since arriving in Toronto in 2012, the Raptors go as Kyle Lowry goes and its been going very well. Each season the Raptors have improved in the standings and Lowry's individual achievements have grown, peaking this past season. The Raptors won the most games in franchise history and went to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. Individually, Lowry posted career-highs in points per game, usage rate, and true shooting percentage – earning him his first appearance on an All-NBA team to go with a return to the starting lineup in the All-Star game. His contributions on both ends put him top ten in overall value according to both ESPN and No matter how you slice it, Kyle Lowry was the best point guard in the Eastern Conference last season.

The one black mark against Lowry has been his postseason performance. Unable to translate his regular season prowess into the playoffs, the Raptors have faltered when it counts. After admittedly running out of gas in the 2015 season, Lowry reshaped his body for the 2016 campaign, but suffered from a dramatic shooting slump that proved fatal for the Raptors. It may seem that the next step in this fairy tale is for Lowry to put together a great postseason performance and the Raptors to legitimately threaten Cleveland for a spot in the Finals.

However, there is the real possibility that we have seen the best from Lowry and thus the Toronto Raptors as well. Lowry is at an age where improved performance can hardly be counted on and players of his size tend to decline. Not helping matters is the heavy reliance the Raptors have upon him – Lowry played the second most minutes per game in the league and was featured in the Raptors' top nine lineups last season. Clearly, any sign of decline from Lowry is bad news for Toronto. That said, there is hope that Lowry can maintain his current level. First, his play in the Olympics was encouraging and walked out without any injuries. Secondly, and more importantly, the signing of Cory Joseph last year allowed Lowry to spend more time off the ball, lightening his load despite playing heavy minutes. The magical Kyle Lowry-Toronto Raptors story is not over, but we shall see this year whether we are heading for a tragic or triumphant finale.

G – Isaiah Thomas | Boston Celtics

The heir apparent to Rajon Rondo in Boston, Isaiah Thomas arrived not a moment too soon in the middle of 2015, bringing a rainstorm of playmaking and shooting upon the deserted Celtics backcourt. Since arriving, the Celtics have a .602 winning percentage in regular season games featuring Thomas. Taking over the starting PG job in 2016, the Washington alum led the Celtics from the 18th best offense to number ten. Compared to his peers in the Eastern Conference, Thomas' offensive numbers last year were competitive to superior. His complete offensive game allows him to handle the extreme burden the Celtics hand him – virtually all of Boston's offense centers around him in pick and roll or coming off screens.

Alas, while he's worked tirelessly to overcome his physical disadvantages to glory on offense, the same cannot be said for his defense. Standing just 5-9, without the explosive athleticism of an Eric Bledsoe, Thomas is hard pressed to have a positive impact on the defensive side of the ball. He is not an effective thief or rebounder for the position and his team defended 5.6 points better per 100 possessions with him on the bench – the largest drop off on the team. Luckily for Thomas, he plays with three of the best perimeter defensive players in the league in Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, and Jae Crowder who are more than capable of covering up for his deficiencies – last year Boston finished 4th in defense.

F – Carmelo Anthony | New York Knicks

Melo is the lone superstar in this division. Some argue that the super part is fading, while others argue that he never possessed the super and his stardom is fading fast. A nine-time All-Star, six-time All-NBA, three-time Olympic gold medalist, former number three overall pick, Anthony has never finished higher than third in MVP voting and never been named to the 1st team All-NBA. The soon to be 32 year-old Anthony is one of the most confounding bonafide Hall of Famers in recent memory.

The most damning demerit against Melo is his lack of success in the playoffs. He's been to only one Conference Final and two Conference Semifinals, taking a first-round exit eight times. Compounding matters, since re-signing with New York in 2014, under the management of the great Phil Jackson, the Knicks have missed the playoffs for the now third consecutive season. I would argue that this most recent part of Melo's career has suffered due to matters outside of his control. For a guy who coached teams that had tremendous roster stability, trying to implement an offense that requires familiarity to establish necessary continuity and timing, Phil Jackson has brought an odd brand of chaos to the Knicks' roster since arriving – only three players from the 2015 roster Jackson began with remain with the team heading into this season. Now on his third head coach, Jackson has a lot to answer to in terms of his ability to construct a roster and culture around Melo in order to maximize his last remaining prime years – what I believe he was hired to do.

Let's not let Melo off the hook entirely, however. His individual struggles certainly play a role in the misery of Knicks fans over the past two seasons specifically. Never known as a defensive wizard, Anthony has not been adding value on the defensive side and has most likely been a negative. The catch-all stats put him well-below average in their defensive components, the Knicks saw a defensive boost with Melo out of the game, but more simply father time has waged war on his feet and he simply can't keep up with his counterparts. You might look at his defensive rebounding numbers and how they've increased recently as a saving grace for his defense, but you would be failing to consider his increased playing time at power forward and his partnership with Robin Lopez, a notoriously unselfish box-out artist, allowing teammates to clean up behind him.

The most worrisome trend for Melo, however, is his specialty, scoring. His true shooting percentage the last two seasons has hovered at 53 % - below league average, his career average, and well-off the 56 % he posted in 2013 and 2014 in New York. A part of his drop is attributable a decline in free throw attempts, worrisome in its own right. More troubling is his steadily declining three-point percentage and inability to finish inside. He has yet to reestablish the three-point accuracy he flashed before Phil arrived in New York, hovering around a respectable but disappointing 34 %. With regard to his finishing, from inside of five feet, Melo has also fallen from over 60 % early in his career down to just above 50 % over the past four seasons in New York.

It may seem like I'm being hard on Melo, but he is the most important player in this division and the heart and soul of the Knicks. Any chance of success in New York starts with him. Amidst his struggles, all is not lost and has many outstanding strengths. Melo remains one of the best players in isolation, if not the best, in the league, thanks in large part to an increasingly dominant midrange game – he shot a career-best 45.3 % between the arc and the free throw line last year. Additionally, Melo reprised an intriguing creation ability, posting a career-best assist rate last season – barely besting his previous best in 2012. Hopefully alongside the veteran talent influx, Melo can put together the complete playmaking offensive year Knicks fans have anticipated since he joined the team and the one the Knicks will need if they are to reach their lofty goals.

F – Al Horford | Boston Celtics

I wrote about Al Horford as one of my favorite free agent signings in the Eastern Conference a few weeks ago. In short, Horford is the all-around two-way big man that can replace and complement all the one-trick ponies in the Celtics frontcourt, while also lightening the load of the previously examined Isaiah Thomas. Horford will float between power forward and center seamlessly and should serve as a positive upgrade over departed Jared Sullinger. Horford is the most polished two-way frontcourt player in the entire division – quite the signing for a Celtics team already on the rise.

C – Brook Lopez | Brooklyn Nets

They don't make ‘em like Brook Lopez anymore. Standing seven feet tall, weighing over 275 pounds, Lopez is the imposing, low-post force in short supply across the league. Unfortunately for Brook, the Brooklyn Nets have been miserable of late, with no end in the foreseeable future. As a result, he has gone virtually unnoticed and unheralded by the public the last two seasons. Lopez led the NBA in post-ups last season, shooting over 50 % - the best among centers. There is no bigger scoring threat in the post than Brook Lopez. Although he has shown a willingness to pass on par with other elite post scorers, he has also shown a propensity to turn the ball over, which hurts the advantage his post-up dominance provides to the offense as a whole. He makes up for it though by shooting nearly 80 % from the free throw line, a rarity at the center position these days.

His size and lumbering movements fit the bill of a poor defender, especially in a league with so many dynamic pick-and-roll operators. However, looks can be deceiving and Lopez does not get his due as a defender. First of all, Brooklyn's defense was a complete disaster without Lopez on the floor last season. However, Brooklyn's defense was also pretty terrible even with Brook on the floor. Digging deeper on an individual basis, Lopez has proven an above average rim protector. Certainly not an elite shot blocker, Lopez blocked 1.8 shots per 36 minutes last season, higher than Andre Drummond, Joakim Noah, Ian Mahinmi, and Marc Gasol – guys with positively perceived rim protection abilities. But rim protection is about more than blocking shots. Lopez managed to affect the shooting percentage of shots within six feet of the hoop at a rate comparable to or superior than those of his defensive-minded peers. Finally, Lopez is amongst the best at the center position at avoiding fouls, an overlooked positive necessary for successful defense and consistent minutes. We will see how long Lopez remains a member of the Brooklyn Nets, but for now, take some time to appreciate the best pure center in the Atlantic Division this upcoming season.

Best of the Rest

6th ManMarcus Smart | Boston Celtics

Only entering his third year in the league, Smart has already established himself as one of the most entertaining players in the league. One minute he's terrorizing the other team's point guard, the next he's launching a contested three-pointer, and the next he finds himself defending Paul Millsap on the block – something he did with surprising success at the end of the playoff series with Atlanta this past year. There aren't really any statistics that jump off the screen in terms of excellence on the court – yet, he is only 22 years of age. What does stand out however is that nearly 50 % of his shot attempts in his career have come from three like he's Steph Curry, yet he is a sub-30 % three-point shooter – very unlike Steph Curry. Clearly, Smart is not lacking in confidence and that's what's so encouraging. Stepping in for the injured Avery Bradley in the playoffs, Smart proved indispensable with his versatility. If he can put his versatility and confidence together with improved skills and efficiency, Boston will have a very special player on their hands. For now, the Celtics will settle for one of the top spark plugs off the bench.

Player to WatchDario Saric | Philadelphia 76ers

As is often the case, opportunities present themselves in the unlikeliest of fashions. With Ben Simmons, the number one overall pick, unfortunately out for many months or more with a broken foot, the door is now open for the 22-year-old Croatian to step up in a big way. It has been said that Saric is the Ben Simmons of Croatia. It is now possible, if not entirely likely, that Saric will step into the role the 76ers envisioned for Simmons this season. That role will probably involve some primary ball handling duties and a lot of playmaking responsibility. While Saric does not possess the extraordinary passing ability of Simmons – few do – he is crafty and excels with the ball in his hands. The most promising difference between the two however is their willingness to shoot. Simmons literally can't be paid to shoot at this stage of his career, while Saric is already flashing some three-point range in the preseason – nailing four of six through two games. Not having Simmons is a big disappointment for Sixers fans, but Saric could prove to be a pleasant surprise with a bigger role than expected.

Key AcquisitionCourtney Lee | New York Knicks

In spite of all the moves the Knicks made to bring the Chicago Bulls to Carmelo Anthony, they would be in big trouble if not for signing Courtney Lee. With the departures of Aaron Afflalo and Langston Galloway, a massive hole at shooting guard desperately needed filling. New York did not just fill the hole, but upgraded in the process. On a team with ball-dominators like Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony, role players are key to success. Lee has proven exceptional as a role-playing swingman both in Memphis and his brief stay in Charlotte. While some of his numbers may not look terribly impressive, he is a capable shooter all across the floor, with an ability to defend multiple positions. Completing a starting lineup that should prove very intriguing this season, Lee will once again fly under the radar, subsidizing the star performances from Anthony et al.

Most Missed PlayerEvan Turner | Boston Celtics

Check out what I wrote about Turner and his fit in Portland from a few weeks ago. Unbeknownst to many, Turner played a critical role for Boston off the bench last year. Sure, Turner is a poor three-point shooter and the Celtics were ‘better' with him off the floor last season. The reality is that Turner served as their backup point guard last season and provided some insurance against an Isaiah Thomas injury as the only other reliable playmaker in the backcourt. They are resting a lot of potential responsibility on unproven players to fill that role. Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart are the de-facto primary ball-handlers when Thomas steps off the floor and neither have them have shown an exceptional ability to create shots for anyone but themselves. It is possible that those two are ready to accept larger roles, but with both entering just their age 22 seasons, there is cause for concern in the Celtics backcourt, especially if Thomas misses any time this year. With Turner gone, reliable playmaking is weakness of the Celtics that may haunt them on their quest for another Atlantic Division crown.

Favorite Play – Boston Celtics

Coach Stevens has such a large repertoire of sideline out of bounds plays when his team needs a three-point shot it doesn't seem right to single out one. Nevertheless, I have a personal connection to this play here, a play I used to run during my playing days – I'll let former opponents try and figure out which point in my career I am referring to, good luck.

This is special play reserved for the end of a game when you need a three-pointer. Like most inbound plays in the NBA, the action starts with a pin-down screen along the ball-side lane line – Kelly Olynyk screens for Avery Bradley in the clip. However, this is a decoy and instead of entering the ball to Bradley, the inbounder turns his attention to the real action – a cross screen from the opposite block for Olynyk. This is a very bizarre action – a trademark of Coach Stevens – because it calls for a long inbound pass to Olynyk on the opposite block. The screen is effective against multiple defenses because using Thomas as a screener means there won't be much/any help and, if the defense switches, having a big man like Olynyk as the receiver creates an advantage over the guard previously defending Thomas. But the money comes as soon as Olynyk gathers the ball, triggering a cross screen at the top of the key for Bradley and hopefully a big-time three-pointer like you see in the clip. Note that the play is uber-effective in the clip below because the defender most capable of disrupting the Bradley shot, Tim Duncan, took himself out of position trying to steal the inbound pass – using the defender's intelligence against him by building multiple decoy/setup actions before the finale. Magnificent!

Stat of the Division – 33.6

The Boston Celtics have benefitted from a favorable opponent three-point percentage over the past two seasons. In fact, in both 2015 and 2016, opponents shot exactly 33.6 % from beyond the arc – good for 4th best in each season. There is evidence suggesting that three-point percentage defense is largely random. The best way to defend three-pointers is to not allow them in the first place. The Celtics have finished 9th and 10th respectively in three-point attempts as a percentage of field goal attempts allowed – so perhaps opponent bricks will continue to pile up. What is peculiar is the Toronto Raptors suffered from the second worst three-point percentage allowed despite finishing only five spots behind Boston in three-point attempts allowed last season. Do the Celtics possess superior perimeter defense that truly disrupts three-pointers and if not, how long can their good fortune last? While there are many facets to successful defense, having the ball bounce your way from downtown certainly helps. How three-pointers punish the top two teams in the division is worth monitoring because it might make the difference in who comes away with the division championship.

Bold Prediction – Toronto will finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference
Division Winner – Toronto Raptors

If I'm picking the Raptors to win the Eastern Conference then it follows they would also win the Atlantic Division, so I'm kind of cheating here but I also happen to be the one who makes the rules. I think the race for the division title will be very close, but ultimately I think Boston will miss Turner this season – even if letting him walk was in the best long-term interest of the franchise. Everyone seems ready to anoint the Celtics as the top challengers to Cleveland in the East, but I see a team light on playmaking that has benefitted from three-point fortune, as we mentioned above. It's like everyone has forgotten about Toronto and how they were the second-best team in the East last year.

Toronto brings back virtually the entire roster with the exception of Bismack Biyombo – who they replaced adequately with Jared Sullinger as a rebounding big who can play center, albeit with less energy and finger-wagging. Actually, you could make the argument that they also added DeMarre Carroll, who, despite signing last year, played in just 26 games and was never really himself due to injuries. While you could make a case that the Raptors rely so heavily upon Kyle Lowry on both ends that any extended games missed would be crippling, the same sort of argument applies to the Celtics and Isaiah Thomas. I believe in the culture and continuity the Raptors have established both with their roster and with their rabid fans and I believe the next logical step for the franchise is to chase the top overall seed.

Cleveland is coming off consecutive Finals appearances and are suddenly starving for depth in the backcourt. It is not out of the question, especially given their perceived conference dominance, that the Cavs take it easy in the regular season in pursuit of a healthy playoff roster. On the other hand, Toronto's best chance to slay LeBron James and company is with home-court advantage in the playoffs. So, I predict they will take their sharpshooting aggressiveness to the top of the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference in 2017.